Shining a Spotlight 01.10.13: The Impact of RAW
Posted by Michael Weyer on 01.10.2013
With RAW celebrating twenty years, a look at how much it changed the game for wrestling television and the fans.
Age is something a lot of us prefer not to think of. Yet when a major milestone occurs, you have to acknowledge it and also realize how much time has passed for you and the world itself. This week sees such an event as we hit an anniversary of something that truly changed wrestling as we know it, not just for a single company but the entire business.
It was twenty years ago this week that "Monday Night RAW" premiered.
1993 is not a year wrestling fans remember fondly. WWF would have poor stuff with the return and sudden exit of Hogan, Lex Luger built up big only to come up short trying to win the WWF title and several ridiculous characters like Batsion Booger and such. Of course, they'd be much better than WCW, whose litany of mistakes in that year is worthy of an entire separate column (the Orlando tapings, the mini-movies, messing up the Hollywood Blondes and more) while the indy scene was rough too. Yet that year started out with the arrival of a television show that would change the entire landscape of wrestling and still remains important. The impact of RAW is still amazing, especially when you consider what wrestling broadcasting was once like.
Olden Days of TV
When wrestling first came to television in the 1950's, it was rough like everything else in that "Golden Age." Even the advent of color didn't do much to change it, although there would be an interesting "digression" as the early days would have matches in arenas but as more local territories got their own shows, they would do them from small studios in front of only a hundred or so people. That included the famed Georgia promotion with Gordon Solie doing commentary and the Memphis area as well. It was all standard, a single camera catching the action, another for promos at a side desk, nothing major.
That changed in 1982 when Mickey Grant hooked up with the growing World Class Championship Wrestling and proceeded to transform the way wrestling programming was presented. Inspired by boxing coverage, Grant had crew working with shoulder cameras to get in close to the action on the aprons and microphones by the ring to catch the action. He also added instant and slo-mo replays along with top-notch editing in a control booth, thus bringing fans into the action more than ever before. It also had the wrestlers step up their game, knowing any botches would be well broadcast and thus doing their best to get over more. Grant also began taped segments of the stars, music videos for Iceman Parsons, Chris Adams having tea, the Freebirds doing a promo at a house on "Badstreet" and more. Thanks in no small part to Grant, WCCW was hot because of their presentation and others were quick to follow suit.
When Vince McMahon took over WWF, he moved some of the shows from a studio to a regular arena. His work included the now-infamous "Black Sunday" where WWF was added to TBS' regular wrestling programming but fans despised the cartoonish antics and Vince later sold it off. Bill Watts was the best to emulate the WCCW style in his Mid-South with music videos and editing to match the hard-hitting action and storylines he could provide. The AWA was a bit behind the times, not surprising given how Verne Gagne was pretty old school.
You also have to remember that the television landscape in the 1980's was so different, it's almost as if it was a century ago instead of thirty years. Cable was there but only about fifty channels on most providers. VCRs were the only way to tape shows as people actually watched them live for the most part. For wrestling, it broke down like this: McMahon had his shows from Madison Square Garden broadcast in the Northwest and the "Superstars" and "Wrestling Challenge" shows on weekends, plus the occasional "Saturday Night's Main Event" specials on NBC. Crockett had the long-running two-hour block on TBS on Saturday afternoons along with syndicated shows that bore the "NWA" label but named after World Championship Wrestling. The AWA had a spot on ESPN while the local promotions (Memphis, Mid-South, Portland, Florida) had their own regular programming on weekends. An interesting bit was in 1987 when "Pro Wrestling This Week" debuted on the syndicated market, showing clips of wrestling shows from around the world for fans to enjoy.
For the most part, the shows would feature "squash" matches where a major star would be up against a jobber, the jobber smacked around for a while until the star could hit his big finisher to win. Starting in 1986, more big matches would be used for these shows (like the Ricky Steamboat/Randy Savage battle) but the bigger matches were saved for the "SNME" shows. Also, the two weekly programs would usually be the same matches, just different commentary teams over the pre-taped bits. The NWA shows would be more about promos with the Four Horsemen always in fine form, a bit off-putting to see major stars in a tiny studio setting in front of a hundred people. The syndicated shows would have bouts, one 1987 broadcast showing a fantastic Ric Flair/Barry Windham match although there would be the annoying tendency to spent a show promoting a major main event (like Dusty Rhodes, Nikita Kolloff and the Road Warriors versus the Horsemen) only to have the show end just as the match was about to start. Still, these shows helped push Crockett to the forefront of the NWA in the minds of fans.
Other additions would be "Tuesday Night Titans" on USA which would be Vince doing a talk show like Carson with Lord Alfred Hayes as his sidekick, mostly interviews and sketches, including some fun bits like George Steele getting electroshock therapy and the classic "Fuji Vice." It would eventually morph into "Prime Time Wrestling," a show of clips of WWF hosted by Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan, the duo have a fantastic chemistry with skits at an Old West town and a zoo that showed nice comic timing.
Remember, the PPV market was incredibly small back then, only Wrestlemania until 1987 when McMahon began the Survivor Series just to screw up Crockett's plans with Starrcade on PPV. Crockett would hit back by creating the Clash of the Champions to go against Wrestlemania IV, the Clash's massive success leading to more prime-time cards. However, the idea of raising the stakes so high with a weekly prime-time show, live to boot, was pretty daring. But then again, daring is what made Vince so successful in the first place so perhaps it wasn't as big a gamble as it seemed.
The Mood of RAW
It's interesting how WWF came upon the Manhattan Center before ECW did. Housing only a few hundred frantic New York City fans, it felt more lively than the older arena shows did, intimate and yet still exciting. The live factor enhanced it, although the schedule for a while would be live one week, then taped for the next. Vince McMahon, Bobby Heenan and Randy Savage handled commentary duties with the first show featuring Yokozuna crushing Koko B. Ware, the Steiners defeating the Executioners, Shawn Michaels defending the IC title against Max moon and the Undertaker defeating Damien Demento in the first RAW main event. Meanwhile, Bobby Heenan was shown outside unable to get in, resorting to dressing like a woman to try and enter. It was something to watch although it would take a while for it to really click as "must-watch" viewing.
Notable early moments included Money Inc doing a brutal attack on Brutus Beefcake, smashing his face with a case. That brought Hulk Hogan to make a grand return, although a bit off seeing such a monster star in a small setting. It was in May that "RAW" really began stepping it up with a single program. Razor Ramon, a majorly built star, was facing off against the Kid, who had been taking various names with a losing record. Missing a charge, Ramon fell prey to a bodypress by the Kid for a stunning upset to create the 1-2-3 Kid. On the same show, Michaels did an in-ring promo arrogantly talking of his greatness and issuing an open challenge. A guy came out of the crowd, pulling off hood and glasses to reveal himself as Marty Jannetty, who accepted the challenge and, with some help from Mr. Perfect, pinned Michaels to win the IC title, the first "RAW" title change. Michaels would regain the title and debut his new bodyguard, Kevin "Diesel" Nash, as he and Jannetty would have a rematch voted Match of the Year. Again, this was a big deal, matches that fans would normally pay for at house shows being shown for free on live TV, it made "RAW" truly something to check out a lot.
It would change a bit as 1993 went on, more shows out of regular arenas, including the two taped back-to-back where Razor Ramon and Rick Martel won a battle royal for condertership of the vacant IC title and Ramon beat Martel "the next week" for the belt. The show was clearly the new drive for WWF, big events taking place on it, the weekend shows mentioning it more and more and so if you missed "RAW," you missed a lot. WCW was still mired with the disastrous idea of shooting three months worth of weekend shows in one go, which messed up a lot of storylines and spoiler warnings so "RAW" just felt even more vibrant and exciting and clearly, being on it upped the game of many workers. In just one year, it was the flagship of WWF programming and the push the company needed in a rough period for the business.
While 1994 would see some of the initial fervor fade, "RAW" was still vital for WWF with great ratings and pushing storylines like the Bret-Owen feud among others like Bret defending the WWF title against the Kid in a great match. WWF added to it with the Sunday morning "Action Zone," home to stuff like the sensational Ramon/Kid vs Shawn/Diesel tag match that helped elevate all four men. While WCW would strike back with the arrival of Hogan, their Saturday afternoon shows out of a tiny Orlando studio just seemed majorly lacking compared to the frenetic rush of a "RAW."
So when Eric Bischoff convinced Ted Turner to give him an hour of prime-time for "Nitro," he knew he had to hit and hit hard. At first, most thought "Nitro" would fail, up against an established show and the fact its debut came from the Mall of America wasn't favorable either. But Bischoff had caught the break of a lifetime by having Lex Luger, who'd wrestled for WWF just a day earlier, show up in a massive shock. Bischoff then took advantage of "RAW" moving to more taped shows to give away the results. It was the first serious competition Vince had had in quite a while and upped the game for WWF. Thus, WWF was soon adding stuff like the giant ramp and the TitanTron with bigger pyro to go against "Nitro's" stuff like dancing girls amid the great cruiserweight action.
The Monday Night War coincided with the real rise of the IWC to create a period where wrestling was truly hot, you never knew what was coming. That was proven when the New World Order debuted and "Nitro" took off with 87 straight weeks of victories, marked with such things as Rick Rude managing to show up on both shows on the same night. Of course, that would turn out to be a bad move for WCW in the end as Vince, pushed hard, fought back with the "Attitude" coming out with Steve Austin, DX and the road to Montreal. Meanwhile, the constant victories gave Bischoff a massive swelled head and arrogance to make him think he could keep going the same creative direction with no problems and pushing the NWO all the time. That allowed WWF to take the lead while WCW would implode and Vince Russo's "Crash TV" style just made it even worse. Yes, WWF had skits and such on "RAW" and "SmackDown" but Russo seemed to think that wrestling was a secondary attraction for a wrestling TV show. Sure, WWF had problems but WCW was so much worse, fans turned off it big-time. Of course, both shows would do away with the old "jobber" matches for more main-event level stuff and while WWF didn't do such massive give-aways as Hogan/Goldberg, you could argue they gave away far too many shows that could have been saved for PPV and a good amount of money.
When the War ended, "RAW" was changed to one of the two "brands" of WWE and clearly meant to always be the "A" show. True, it wouldn't always be that way; 2003, for example, it suffered under HHH dominating while "SmackDown" took off with their amazing talents. However, "RAW" remains the key show for WWE, its legacy set with its mix of matches, promos and more. It's influenced TNA in obvious ways with "Impact" although TNA learned the hard way that trying to go head-to-head with WWE was a bad idea in 2011. It's the show that drives the company on with storylines and guys doing their best to breakout from Orton to Ryback. The show that broke the mold for wrestling programming in so many, many ways and still is the one we debate over every single week after each airing. Twenty years is an impressive achievement for any TV show, especially in the wild world of pro wrestling. Yes, it has its bad times like the "Mystery GM" and the infamous tribute to Benoit before the full facts came out. But then, that's a sign of how important it is, that it's given so many incredible moments that WWE put out a DVD of the top 100 and there were still slews of major bits left out. So we may have our issues with it now and then but "RAW" is still the show that changed wrestling forever and the one we want to watch and debate still. It's sure to continue that legacy more but still amazing to see how a single program could shift so much for wrestling in general.